Mexican wizard of the American nightmare

by: Tara Ruttenberg

...and so the car drama continues. now with a few life lessons in tow.

this morning i found myself roadside off the 8 at Hotel Circle, comparing estimates on a new timing belt for the new-to-me used Honda CRV i bought two weeks ago - no, not the stolen one i'd test-driven on my Craigslist kidnapping date. this one was legit, title in hand, and even the mechanic gave it a clean bill of health before i took the plunge and bought it. i had felt accomplished when i talked the guy down from $3900 and we settled on a clean $3400 cash. and she was all mine.

this Saturday, two weeks later to the day, i left it in front of the Sheraton after it died on me at 70mph on the freeway, swerving to the shoulder in oncoming, angry traffic, ne'er to start again. today i was pleasantly shocked to find it where i'd left it, expecting someone to have stolen it or at least borrowed the tires for a while. but there she was, shining blue in the morning sun, 'paintball or die' sticker still neatly pressed to the bottom righthand corner of the rear window, right where it's former owner had left it. too busy driving it up and down the coast from one fancy-free activity to the next, i hadn't even bothered to register the thing in my name yet.

"hola mi'ija," Antonio's jolly demeanor met me at the curb. despite my run of luck, i couldn't help but smile. he was just one of those guys. i climbed into the passenger seat of his tow-truck, watching in the rearview as he hoisted my new blue baby to an incline, chained up on the flatbed behind me. completely secured.

unrusting my Spanish, we got to talking.

"llevo 22 años aqui en San Diego," he said. "since 1988."

now i'm no math wiz, but i ran the numbers in my head anyway.

"no son 26 años?" i asked him, gently.

we both laughed at his miscalculation on how long he'd actually been here.

"looks like you lost 4 years somewhere along the way," i joked. we laughed some more as he shook his head.

Antonio had moved here from Acapulco, once among Mexico's top beach vacation destinations. he had money there and everything, he said. but he wouldn't go back now; not with the way things were down there.

i thought about the sense of security we take for granted here, material security anyway. not having to worry about our cars not being there where we parked them two days later. probably a much different story in today's Acapulco Antonio had left behind. someone would have definitely borrowed my tires there, indefinitely.

"i've been a grujero for 15 years," he said, reminding me that the word for tow-truck driver hadn't made the cut for Spanish vocab i'd remember after a month outside Costa Rica, my transition back into the gringa version of me now nearly complete. 

"and in those 15 years," he continued. "i've learned that a woman driving a stick-shift SUV is a very independent woman."

an independent woman... i looked at myself in the sideview mirror. well at least he knew what he was working with. ( a fault, i thought as i raised an eyebrow in silent confirmation.)

he liked that i lived in Costa Rica, that i had left the US for a simpler life. it was something he aspired to do, too, someday down the line. he was tired of everything being about money here. about ambition, he said. everyone competing for this and that to make a living, doing whatever it takes to get by. he admired people who came here, made some money and got the hell out. people like his friend, he told me, who owned an auto shop, sold everything and moved South to a small home on a humble piece of land somewhere a thousand miles from here. somewhere where the culture was still in tact, he said. where people could be trusted, where relationships were real. where he could just fish and live simply, he said.

i wondered if that's how Antonio had lived in Acapulco 26 years ago. was he nostalgic for a different kind of security he had felt in a previous life's version of himself? or was he looking to the future promise of the emotional security that comes with being part of a community he called home in a simpler life he hoped to create? a new type of non-material security he didn't feel here, yet couldn't imagine himself feeling there? was he stuck, like me, in the insecure space between?

"it seems like a lot of people come here from Mexico for the opportunity to live the American Dream." i said, waking myself from his daydream (or was it mine?). he nodded, perhaps contemplating the good old sueño Americano that brought him here in the first place.

"but are you noticing that many of them find themselves in a situation like yours, where they feel stuck, disillusioned, and want to leave again?" i asked the question i want to ask every single Mexican i meet in San Diego; every single person i talk to, really, whose desire for a simple, happy life seems to clash with their current lived reality, inspired only by the idea that living differently is even a far-flung possibility.

"sueño Americano no es," he said quickly, looking at me as we waited at the stoplight. it's not a dream. "es una pesadilla."

nightmare, i translated in my head. that one i still remembered.

"i've lost two houses already," he admitted just before we reached the auto repair shop's parking lot. i wasn't sure what that meant, but it sounded rough. "i just want a simple life," he went on. "but here, it's all about money. and it's really, really hard."

Antonio pulled the truck to a stop as i pulled my wallet from my bag to pay him, the irony in that moment only apparent to me now.

"do you take credit card?" i asked, pulling the Visa from the square stack of plastic, grateful to the gods of credit for bailing me out of unexpected car debacles like this one, past and present.

"yes," he said. "but i'll have to charge you a $3 fee."

of course he would, i thought, smiling to my feet. three dollars here, three dollars there. what's three dollars to me but a way to make both of our worlds go 'round. 

"está bien?" he asked in kind, apologetic eyes.

"claro que si," i responded in kind, handing him the card. at this point i hadn't yet received the diagnostic report for the repairs i'd need to make my used car all shiny like new again. so at this point, i was still making dilemmonade from my lemon dilemma, all smiles in naivete. because at this point, i didn't know i'd be choosing between investing another $3000 in engine repairs or selling the thing for parts for $500.

"i hope to see you again soon," Antonio told me before i hopped out, my feet touching down in colorful flipflops on the dark asphalt. "under different conditions, of course." he smiled his jolly smile once again.

"ojalá," i said back, cherising the solidarity in our fleeting moments together, knowing i'd never see him again.

as i walked into the shop to face the music of my present car dilemma, Antonio drove off with a wave, to go play hero in someone else's automotive tragicomedy, unknowingly doling out the real, good stuff money can't buy, one wise wizard word at a time.

our realities were very different by privilege and circumstance. yet for that perfect instant in time, we were kindred souls in the inescapability of our shared American nightmare.

please say it gets better once we wake up.